In May 1972, the Irish electorate overwhelmingly voted to join the European Economic Community (EEC), the forerunner to the modern European Union (EU).
Strong support from the farm organisations, and from the wider food industry, was a critical factor in the resounding victory for the Yes camp in the crucial referendum that summer.
However, Irish farmer backing for EEC membership was not a 1970s phenomenon; nor was it a reaction to political developments or to the cajoling of the country’s political elite.
On the contrary, support for Irish membership of the EEC was an established article of faith for many Irish farm leaders from the 1950s. Indeed, it was originally proposed by the National Farmers Association’s (NFA) first president Juan Greene in 1957.
Historian Gary Murphy noted that the NFA’s leaders were “very much alive to the benefits of participation in an EEC Common Agricultural Policy (CAP)” and had gone as far as to propose in the summer of 1960 that Ireland should join the new bloc with or without Britain.
This was a radical position for an Irish farm organisation to hold at the time, given the country’s dependence on the British market as an export outlet for store and fat cattle, as well as beef, bacon and butter.
Importance of cattle
At that time, Britain generally took between 500,000 and 650,000 live cattle each year, and was Ireland’s main export market for both butter and bacon – albeit that UK imports of Irish pigmeat and dairy products were increasingly curtailed by competition from Denmark and New Zealand. Overall, the UK took close to 75% of Irish exports.
Despite the crucial importance of the UK market, the NFA’s national council argued in 1957 that Irish membership of the EEC would be preferable to closer trading ties to Britain.
Greene maintained that the European project was not a challenge for Irish farmers but, rather, could be their “salvation”.
“If we survive, it will be as a partner in a larger viable economic unit of an international character,” Greene said.
That the NFA was willing to push such a bold trade policy reflects the new-found confidence of the country’s farm leaders, and also the growing frustration that Ireland’s agricultural exports were largely restricted to the UK market.
The 1950s have been depicted by many historians as a decade of decay, as a period blighted by mass emigration and economic stagnation.
However, this characterisation ignores the significant developments the farm sector experienced in the years preceding 1960, and the appetite for radical change which this new environment encouraged and engendered.
Irish farming did not experience marked improvements in terms of either output or prices in the period following World War II
The beef processing industry expanded exponentially during the 1950s, the co-operative mart movement took hold, the NFA and ICMSA were formed, and An Foras Talúntais (the precursor of Teagasc) was established.
Irish farming did not experience marked improvements in terms of either output or prices in the period following World War II, but much of the infrastructure that enabled the rapid modernisation of agriculture during the 1960s and 1970s was put in place during the 1950s.
However, the NFA’s suggestions regarding the EEC were rejected by the Department of Agriculture who feared the possible loss of Ireland’s preferential access to the UK market.
In the 1950s, the importance to the Irish economy of live cattle exports to Britain cannot be underestimated. This trade generated between 25% and 30% of the country’s total export earnings in traded goods.
The Department’s reticence on Ireland making an independent application for EEC membership was shared by the then Fianna Fáil government.
In July 1960, Taoiseach Seán Lemass set out the government’s policy on Europe, confirming that its primary objective was to protect Ireland’s trade relations with Britain. Securing access to Europe was a secondary consideration.
Indeed, when Ireland sought EEC membership a year later, it was arguably pushed into the decision by the UK’s prior application to join. It also reflected the altered political priorities of the Lemass-led government following de Valera’s retirement as Taoiseach in 1959.
As export-led growth was now central to Lemass’s vision for Ireland, foreign economic policy came to the fore after 1959.
A reappraisal of relations with Europe was signalled in the summer of 1959, with a cabinet decision to establish diplomatic relations with the EEC. Ireland did not have diplomatic relations with all six EEC members at that point, nor was it represented in other countries aspiring to join, such as Norway and Denmark.
The negative response of French leader Charles de Gaulle to the UK’s EEC application in January 1963 meant the refusal of Ireland’s bid was a fait accompli.
This rejection had implications on the two fronts. The failed effort convinced Lemass that a comprehensive trade agreement with London was an essential stepping stone in preparing Irish industry for EEC membership at a later date. This led directly to the signing of the Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement (AIFTA) in 1965.
In addition, the EEC application process exposed the Irish Government’s poor preparedness for membership of the trading bloc, and particularly that of the Department of Agriculture. This mistake was not repeated when Ireland applied again a decade later.
Britain and the EEC
Historian Paul Rouse has characterised the Department of Agriculture’s performance during this period as displaying “lethargy” and lacking “dynamism”.
The shortcomings in the Department’s approach were also noted at the time by the Irish Farmers Journal.
The newspaper bemoaned the delay in setting up targeted industry study groups to assess the impact of EEC membership on the various agricultural sectors, pointing out that the Department of Industry and Commerce already had such working parties meeting by December 1961.
The critical importance of a trade deal with Britain – or EEC membership –reflected Europe’s changed trading environment as a result of the EEC’s founding in 1957, and the European Free Trade Association’s (EFTA) establishment in 1960.
The EEC, which initially included France, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, West Germany and Italy, was the more ambitious of the two blocs.
The integrated customs union, with the continent’s industrial powerhouses at its heart, had the potential to become a global economic superpower, as was recognised by British cabinet minister Reginald Maudling who admitted to Lemass in May 1959 that he foresaw the EEC gradually gaining a position of trade dominance in Europe.
The EFTA, which included the UK, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Austria, Portugal and Switzerland, was a looser trading bloc that confined its activities to reductions in tariffs between member states and the abolition of import quotas.
EEC and EFTA
The emergence of the EEC and EFTA posed a major challenge for Ireland, and particularly for the export-dependent farming industry. In essence, it made Ireland’s traditional adherence to protectionism increasingly untenable.
For example, Ireland’s cattle and beef sector was reliant on export outlets, with the total number of animals sold to foreign buyers (either shipped live or as beef) averaging over one million head for the years 1960 to 1962 inclusive.
Severe volatility and uncertainty in global beef markets illustrated the potential risks for Irish exporters generally.
Irish beef processors faced continuous price and demand fluctuations in Britain, Europe and the US in the first half of the 1960s.
A pronounced trend towards greater nationalisation of supply in these markets was an added concern for meat exporters, while increased competition from South American and eastern European beef in Smithfield and other major outlets across England was a recurring feature of the trade during the first half of the 1960s.
As early as January 1960, the Irish Farmers Journal predicted that increased output from EEC farmers was likely to result in more tariff barriers on imports and subsidised community surpluses being dumped on world markets.
These predictions proved accurate. A recovery in cattle numbers in Europe resulted in the EEC having a 500,000t surplus of beef by 1964-65, and Irish product was largely excluded from the market until the early 1970s as a consequence.
Ironically, the reopening of Europe’s markets for beef and live cattle in the early 1970s coincided with the opening of negotiations on Ireland joining the EEC, along with the UK and Denmark.
By this time the political landscape, and specifically French opposition to the UK’s entry, had largely abated following the retirement of de Gaulle.
Farmers wanted entry
There was obvious enthusiasm among farmers for EEC membership. While the AIFTA of 1965 had opened up the 56m British market to Irish farm produce, EEC membership opened the door to 270m of the world’s wealthiest consumers.
As the renowned agricultural economist, Seamus Sheehy, observed at the time: “Free access to a market of this size is clearly an attractive proposition from the point of view of a food-exporting country such as Ireland.”
An Irish Grassland and Animal Production Association study in 1972 was equally optimistic in its forecasts for the Irish farm sector within the EEC. It predicted that Ireland’s agricultural output could grow by £190m a year following EEC accession, with the beef and dairy sectors accounting for £150m of this figure.
Moreover, it ambitiously forecast the creation of 24,000 jobs on the back of this expansion.
Farmers were focused on the more immediate benefits in terms of the improved farmgate prices that the CAP could deliver. For example, in the summer of 1972, the average price differential for beef cattle between Ireland and the EEC was £10 per hundredweight (50kg) or £120 on a finished animal.
The conviction that EEC membership was the right option for Irish agriculture was continually repeated during the referendum campaign in the spring of 1972.
The farm organisations conceded that there were concerns around the growth in milk production across Europe, and with regard to the lack of access for Irish lamb to the lucrative French market.
However, they argued that, on balance, the supports offered by CAP made EEC membership a positive development for Irish farming.
The IFA leader, TJ Maher, urged both small and large farmers to back EEC membership, warning that smallholders could be “wiped out” if Ireland remained outside the Common Market while the UK joined.
The ICMSA also actively backed the Yes campaign in the referendum, citing full access to a regulated and minimum-priced dairy market as the primary reason.
However, the farm body was a reluctant convert to EEC membership, with ICMSA president, Jimmy O’Keeffe, expressing serious reservations regarding the policies of Sicco Mansholt, the EEC Commissioner for Agriculture, who proposed the managed decline in Europe’s farmer numbers and targeted supports for those considered viable and commercial food producers. This was not the EEC that Irish farmers dreamed of joining.
Trade body support
The agribusiness lobby was equally vocal in its support of EEC membership. ICOS, the creameries and the meat processors all lobbied for a Yes vote.
Clover Meats chair Cyril Power told the Irish Farmers Journal and local newspapers in the southeast on the eve of the vote that meat processors, farmers and workers would all benefit from EEC membership.
It is was a similar message from Michael O’Mahony of the Irish Livestock Exporters and Traders’ Association, who warned of a return to the depression and trade disruption of the economic war were Ireland to reject EEC membership.
The heady air of expectation that characterised the farming sector in 1972 was illustrated by a Meat Trades Journal report from December 1972, where management at Roscrea Meats spoke of the “bonanza” awaiting Irish meat processors once the country joined the EEC.
A front-page editorial on the Saturday before the referendum which read “May 10th must be Yes Day” summed up the concerted nature of the campaign to mobilise the farmer vote.
The subsequent transformation of Irish farming between 1973 and 1979 validated the decision of the farm organisations to support EEC membership.
Agricultural exports trebled to almost £1bn, commodity prices increased by 160% on the back of higher EEC price supports, while factory prices for bullocks more than doubled, rising from 30p/lb to almost 70p/lb which equated to an additional £250 on a typical 620lb carcase.
Family farm incomes
The overall impact of this was that family farm incomes rose from £364m to £842m between 1973 and 1978.
In fact, average farm incomes exceeded pay levels in manufacturing by 15% by 1978.
The downturn in farm incomes and the introduction of milk quotas in the early 1980s rattled farmer support for the European project.
Even so, EEC membership was transformational for Irish farming. Juan Greene’s instincts were proven right.